In the HBO show Silicon Valley
, a group of intrepid programmers build a startup around an ultra-speedy compression algorithm, and quickly find themselves challenged by a Google-like tech titan that wants to conquer the same technology segment. For the show’s creators, however, the plot’s focus on code created a challenge: how to explain to a broad audience—in a non-pedantic way—that some compression algorithms are speedier than others? Silicon Valley
isn’t Star Trek
, where the screenwriters could write pages of impressive-sounding gobbledygook about nonexistent technology and call it a day; if Valley
’s software seemed nonsensical, people would quickly call it out online, which could potentially undermine the show’s reputation. Fortunately, those creators had a pair of very smart consultants—Tsachy Weissman, a professor at Stanford, and a Ph.D student named Vinith Misra—who went above and beyond the call of duty and whipped up an actual formula for comparing compression algorithms. “It is essentially the compression ratio and the ratio of the log of the compression time,” is how Misra explained it to IEEE Spectrum
, “but it then normalizes that number against an industry standard compressor used for the same data. For music, say, we might use [Free Lossless Audio Codec].” Although the formula was created for a fictional television show, researchers may start using it as an actual tool. University of California at Santa Barbara professor Jerry Gibson, for example, will reportedly use the “Weissman Score” in class to “evaluate lossless compression algorithms,” according to IEEE Spectrum. Talk about fiction influencing real life.
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Image: Stanford School of Engineering